Did you know that in under two years, over 99% of the atoms in your body are replaced, by new ones that you’ve either breathed in, eaten or drank? I started coming to this church less than two years ago, and I am now almost a completely different person. I’ve been thinking: what I would say to my old self if I could go back in time to March 2013?
I grew up being taken to church, but the things that I heard didn’t make much sense. I went to college, and became a professional scientist, and I didn’t feel the need for a god, nor a religion. I started thinking about churches again in my twenties. There are not that many places that do astrophysics research in the world: we have to move around a lot, uprooting and relocating every three years, and it’s hard. I started thinking about how you are supposed to find a new community each time, and also about how the friends that my parents had made at their church were such lovely people, people who are sufficiently interested in the challenges of being human that they spend their Sundays thinking about them together.
One of these jobs took me back to England, and I started noticing church buildings: beautiful, old, made of stone, and somehow able to generate a sense of peacefulness that it’s hard to find anywhere else. It began to bother me that these wonderful places were apparently only for believers, despite having been built for the whole village. What I wanted was a church where I could turn up and be welcomed into the community, and where I wasn’t handed my beliefs on a card at the door.
When I moved back to California, I decided that, as a self-made Unitarian, I would do the experiment of joining this church, and see what it was like. One week after I arrived in San Francisco, I lost the person I had moved here to be with. Faced with the reality of my arrival, she had woken up, and suddenly I wasn’t welcome any more. It was a shock: hoping the situation wasn’t final, I was unable to speak to anyone about it for several months. But I had already resolved to come to UU, and so I showed up. Every Sunday, I would sit and listen to the most wonderful music in this beautiful old stone building. I would look at the words on the wall, and think about justice, and mercy, and about the kingdom of good in us all. I would listen to people wiser than me, in the service or at coffee, talking about things that I didn’t hear being discussed anywhere else: compassion, and trust, and understanding. And I would always leave the church feeling better.
So, Past Phil, in March 2013, you’re thinking of joining UUSF? What can I tell you? I think you’re going to find that this church is just what you were looking for. It’s full of wise and caring people, who have principles in common rather than beliefs. Many of them are uncomfortable with the word “Amen,” because it implies too much certainty - and you’ll feel at home. You’ll learn that for you, unitarianism is easy but universalism is hard, but that here is a great place to practise it. Coming here will challenge your friends, too - the ones who have been put off by religion, and question the need to go outside the beloved community of the coffee shop that will be your local community center. But, you’ll leave them there on Sunday mornings anyway, and explain to them that you do better in their community for being in this one. And your parents, when they come to visit? They’ll love it.
You’ll be invited to speak, and have to learn how to do it. You’ll attend science talks on Sunday lunchtimes, and listen to socialist activists and politicians in the evenings. You’ll suddenly realize that you are in a community of organizers, hosting and leading social justice groups at the center of the most liberal city in the most powerful country in the world. But you’ll appreciate the sanctuary when the time comes - and then you’ll find yourself investing in the place, as a member, and in return the sanctuary will become yours. It’s a good experiment, going to UU: you should try it.